Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo are one of the couples at the center of “The Case Against 8,” Ben Cotner and Ryan White’s documentary which takes a behind the scenes look at the historic federal lawsuit filed in an effort to overturn California’s discriminatory ban on gay marriage known as Proposition 8. These two have been together since 1998, and Katami is a fitness expert and small business owner while Zarrillo is the general manager of a theater exhibition company. We watch as they make their case about why they deserve the same rights as anyone else who wants to get married, and we revel in their victory which makes for a genuinely happy Hollywood ending of sorts.
I had a great time talking with Katami and Zarrillo when they were in Los Angeles to talk about their involvement in “The Case Against 8.” For the two of them this was a case that was supposed to last at least a year, but it ended up going on for five.
When this project started this project started, obviously you had no idea of what kind of documentary this would turn out to be. What was your reaction to having these documentary filmmakers, Ben Cotner and Ryan White, follow you around all the time?
Jeff Zarrillo: We knew that it was really important that the story get told because our story and Kris and Sandy’s story is the same story of thousands and thousands of people around California and beyond. So Ben and Ryan coming on board to memorialize it was a great way to make sure that we could put a film together that would help inspire people and help educate people who might be on the fence. Or it might inspire the young kid who is sitting in his room watching this movie, and his parents are out in the living room and they don’t know if he or she is gay, and he looks at this film and says, “Wow! I can do this too! It’s going to be okay.” I think the young people that have yet to fall in love will watch this movie and become inspired to fall in love regardless of their sexuality. So I think with Ben and Ryan coming aboard to do all this, to put a period on the sentences, they have a stake in the outcome too. They are two gay men living in California who would love the opportunity to get married, so I think we always knew that they would take good care of the story, protect the story and tell the truth of our lives and also the lives of so many other people.
Paul Katami: I echo what Jeff said. I mean you go walking into the world of the unknowns. Our focus was the case and no one could’ve ever imagined the twists and turns that it took. But at the time it’s a testament to Ben and Ryan, and they said that this is an important venture. This could be a landmark case, this could be a teachable moment for people, this could help other states and potentially people around the world understand that when there’s an injustice like Proposition 8 you must fight it. You must be at the front end of it because we were on the back end of it when we got into this case. So it was a testament to them to say that we are going to be putting forth the time and the effort and the commitment for however long it takes, not knowing what the third act is and not knowing how this is going to end. I think it’s a true testament to them in saying regardless of win or lose, it’s an important story to tell because it will get people talking about the truth of the matter. I think that’s the goal of a good documentary which is to just represent the truth. No angle, no hard-hitting, this is just telling the truth of what happened. And much to what Jeff said, I believe that that person who may be in the middle of this subject matter, we preach to the choir all the time, but we want to find that unexpected ally. So maybe that person is going to sit in their home in their living room, and they don’t have to publicly affirm or deny anything. They can just sit and understand what the truth of the subject matter is based on this case. To us that’s a benefit beyond anything we ever dreamt about when they first approached us.
Is there anything that you wish was included in this documentary that wasn’t?
Jeff Zarrillo: That’s a good question. I think the movie is so well done and well edited that there are moments where you think, “Wow! I really would have loved to have seen that” like the moment where we get the decision. But I think that Ben and Ryan have done such a good job of using the footage they had, and Kate (Amend) did such a great job editing it that you almost feel like you’re in the room with us. You can imagine Ted (Olson) sitting there with this tie over his shoulder, or you can think of Paul sitting in the courtroom and his knee going up and down and me telling him you need to stop. You almost feel like you were there with us. So there were parts that we wish were there, but they are typically the parts where the cameras weren’t allowed to be. So everything else was told very well, and to have 600 hours of footage and filter it down to an hour and 45 minutes and still have a really strong progression in narrative from beginning to end I think is really a testament to their abilities as filmmakers and Kate’s ability as a really strong editor.
Did the thought of being surrounded by cameras make you hesitant to be in the documentary?
Paul Katami: It’s again another testament to the filmmakers. We were surrounded by media a lot, but ultimately I think in the back of our minds we knew the most important camera that was following us was the one that was going to tell the story. And so many times you have a private moment, just a totally private moment, and you look up and there would be Ben or Ryan behind a camera and you’re like, “Wow I didn’t even know you were in the room,” which is also the testament of a good filmmaker that they are going to capture the truth that way. You don’t ever feel like you have to be on. You can be yourself so they made us feel very, very comfortable along the way with the process. They funded this completely on their own. These filmmakers were behind the cameras, and there might have been just one camera on you, one person in a corner of the room for five hours, and at the end of the day you’d look up and be like, “Wow, we just went through deposition in preparation and Ryan’s been standing there the entire time with the camera on the shoulder or making sure focus and sound was right.” So talk about being dedicated to the film (laughs) because some of that testimony prep is just not exciting. So you’re aware but you’re not aware in a way, and I think that was the beauty of it because you see sometimes people dealing with the media who are in their face. They need a response in the moment, and sometimes that’s not the most genuine thing because you are reacting to what you feel you need to say or need to do. Their (Ben’s and Ryan’s) cameras were the most important ones, but they were not always in our faces. They were always capturing the truth of the moment.
What I like about this documentary is forces you to look at the specifics of the case and the people involved. When Ted Olson was announced as the lead attorney in the case against Proposition 8, there were a lot of objections as he is considered a conservative and also represented George W. Bush in the “Bush v. Gore” case. What was your initial reaction when you heard that Ted Olson would be representing you in this lawsuit?
Jeff Zarrillo: Well it’s very funny. Again, we’ve had these coincidences throughout this whole process, but I (swear to God) had just watched “Recount.” I had never seen it, and for some reason I had seen a pop up on HBO and I TiVoed it and watched it, and within the month we were a part of this lawsuit. So I knew that I could probably sit down at the dinner table and have a great conversation with David Boies (who represented Al Gore in “Bush v. Gore” and was also representing the couples in this case) about everything we agreed on, but with Ted Olson there were probably very few things we would agree on. That really underscores how important it was to have both of them there because it stripped away all of that. This has always been a partisan issue, so the fact that they became involved stripped all that away regardless of the reactions that Ted got from his conservative friends and colleagues. But I really just love the fact that it really just underscores that this is more about equality and it’s more about being an American than being a Democrat or a Republican. And Ted is one of the sweetest grandpas you will ever meet.
What kind of effect has the documentary had on your life so far?
Paul Katami: For us it’s kind of an out of body experience. During the case, it was really about work. It was about making sure that we worked to do what we needed to do for the case to be our best to make that goal happen, and then going right back to our everyday lives and work as well. So there’s really no ego attached to it, but when you see the film at a festival and someone comes up to you afterwards and says I’ve been affected this way by this film, and it’s always been positive, you think of the power that you have in your own life and with your own voice. Because five years ago it was just Jeff and Paul in Burbank speaking on the couch about what we could do to speak out and do something and make it different. And five years later we are watching it in a documentary film after a legal battle at the Supreme Court of the United States. So to me, I think in terms of how it affects us is that it affects us by saying you don’t need a legal battle to make a difference. You don’t need to have this major platform or media or a documentary. You can make a difference by just making a decision to saying yes to something in your own home or community, to stand up and protect yourself and present yourself and people like you because that’s all that we did, and we got lucky. We merged with an effort with people who put their lives on the line to start this movie way back when, and it’s a much easier time for us to do it now. We feel very lucky and blessed, but we also hope that the film can then inspire someone else to do the same. Continue taking the torch forward.
This lawsuit took five years to come to a full conclusion. But when you began it, how long can the lawyers say it was going to take?
Jeff Zarrillo: 18 to 24 months.
Paul Katami: Yeah, and no testimony (laughs). Don’t worry about it; you won’t even take the stand.
Jeff Zarrillo: No trial, it’ll all be a series of motions that will be filed. You’ll have to stand there and make a few appearances, but that would be it. But then Judge Walker decided to have a trial, and we really understood what having a trial meant and how important it would be to have a thorough record and presentation of evidence and experts. And really, how much that trial showed the way that the evidence being on our side versus on their side, it made all the other things worth it.
When the defendants presented their evidence which argued for Proposition 8, a lot of it became kind of comical…
Paul Katami: There was no evidence (laughs).
Oh right, sorry about that. There was one point that was brought up called gender disorientation pathology, and I literally started laughing.
Paul Katami: But this just goes to show you that that is a perfect example of why we had to bring the Proposition 8 campaign to court. Can you imagine that you could just write this and then disseminate it and say this is the truth? And that’s not even the worst of it. That’s actually mild. Junk science was made up and then purported as truth, and then people vote based on that. So you take that to the court of law and you say “prove it.” Where did you find this? And the answer is that “we found it on the internet.” It’s laughable, right? But it’s also so angering because good people were swayed into believing something that was untrue for your benefit and to the damage of other peoples’ lives. It’s embarrassing is what it is. People laugh at it because it’s ridiculous, but then talk to the people who lost partners of 30 or 40 years during this process before they were able to legally marry and how their lives have been destroyed because of the prohibitions to federal law and federal protections and to state laws and state protections. To them it’s not funny at all.
We laughed too (at the defense’s arguments). We were like, are you kidding? It’s a funny part of the movie, but that’s how idiotic it is. You sit there and go, oh my God! Of course you laugh and you laugh at David Blankenhorn and you laugh at these moments where you’re like, really? It’s responsible procreation? Jeff’s sister-in-law said, “I was really offended by that,” because she had to artificially inseminate. And she’s like, “Well does that mean that I’m not responsible? That I’m not a responsible person? I’m married, I want to have a family, and I want to be responsible to this institution.” So it’s laughable, but at the same time it’s angering.
I remember watching that Proposition 8 commercial on television where the little girl comes home and tells her mother that she got told a story about how she can be a princess and that she can marry a princess too, and I remember thinking “are you kidding me?”
Jeff Zarrillo: People live in this world of sound bites and instant information because with working families and moms coming home late and dads coming home late and you’re helping them (the children) with homework and you’re getting them fed, this is how you are getting your information; on bumper stickers and 30-second campaign ads, and that’s why they work.
The documentary really covers your side of the case more than the other side. Did you want to see more of the other side presented, or are you happy with how it all turned out?
Jeff Zarrillo: We’ve had that conversation with Ben and Ryan too, and I think we are all in agreement that this is really, at the heart of it, a love story. It’s a story of two couples. The other side didn’t have any arguments anyway, and it would just take away from why this is such a strong argument on our side. I think just by adding David Blankenhorn and his evolvement, I think that certainly helps. By the time the documentary was made, we didn’t know about Chuck Cooper’s evolvement with his daughter being a lesbian and he’s planning her wedding now. That may have been interesting to have in the movie, but it came out well after the documentary was already done.
Paul Katami: David Blankenhorn has this really awesome evolution afterwards. Believe it or not, the case that he went into to try to support the proponents of Prop 8, he came out understanding better what it was about. He went through the process quite publicly. The film doesn’t say this is right and this is wrong. The film says this is what happened and this is how it ended because of what’s right.
It’s astonishing that Proposition 8 ever made it onto the California ballot, but it’s even more astonishing that it took so long for it to get overturned.
Jeff Zarrillo: Judge Walker actually admonished the lawyer for the Attorney General at one of the hearings early on before we even had a case. He asked, “How does this get on the ballot with this language?”
The movie ends on a great note with you and Jeff getting married, and it’s a wonderful moment because you see all the joy in the room. That is what it’s all about.
Paul Katami: That’s exactly right. We say that all the time. Getting married to Jeff doesn’t change the institution of marriage and it doesn’t harm any kids anywhere. It only benefits our lives and the people that we touch with our lives, and when you see that joy and you see that much relief after being damaged for so long like a second-class citizen, I think it’s hard for anyone to say you don’t deserve that. Believe what you want to believe in your home, I guess, but you don’t go try to enact a law because of it to help prohibit other people from the same rights that you have.